The United States Pension Office

As the United States was the outcome of the Revolutionary War, one of the first duties of the government was the care of the soldiers of that war. Almost as soon as there was any Congress of the United States, and some years before the adoption of the Constitution, pension claims were presented for payment. The general government was not prepared, however, to assume the whole responsibility, and, by a resolution of June 7, 1785, Congress referred to the different States the right of judging who of their citizens were entitled to be placed on the list of invalid pensioners. The States refused to take any action, and the very next Congress found itself confronted with the whole subject again. The general government has assumed the burden of adjudication and payment of pension claims ever since. The appropriations were made for individual cases until 1790, when the first general appropriation of $96,979.72 was made. There was no general pension law until 1792, when it was enacted that, “ if any person, whether officer or soldier, belonging to the militia of any State, and called out in the service of the United States, be wounded or disabled while in actual service, he shall be taken care of at public expense.” This law is the foundation stone upon which our general pension System has been built. The yearly appropriations under it averaged about $90,800 up to 1800. It was not until 1818 that a service pension was granted to the veterans of the Revolution, and then only to those who had served for nine consecutive months, and who were, “from reduced circumstances, . . . in need of assistance from the country for support.” Under this act, up to 1858, over $22,320,000 had been disbursed, and a subsequent law, removing the property qualification, cost $2,601,000.

In 1814, after the close of the War of 1812, the whole amount paid to army pensioners was $90,164.36. There is no tabulated statement attainable, showing the actual sum paid in pensions on account of this war, until the year 1871, when pensions were granted to all who had served sixty days. From that date up to 1888, 60,670 claims had been allowed. The disbursements have decreased from $2,313,409.47 in 1872 to $1,670,264.44 in 1888.

The Mexican War has not proved an expensive one. A service pension was not granted until 1887. About 8000 claims were allowed under this act last year, the payment being eight dollars per month in each case.

The foregoing facts are interesting merely as history. They relate to res adjudicata, and pension legislation may be considered as completed so far as our old wars are concerned. But in the enormous expenditure for pensions which the Civil War has involved, the increasing demands of its survivors, the apparent willingness of Congress to comply with their most extravagant proposals,— here, indeed, we have a question which demands earnest attention.

It is estimated that there were 289,715 men engaged in the Revolutionary War, 527,654 in the War of 1812, 100,460 in the Mexican War, and 2,780,176 in the War of the Rebellion.

It was, therefore, only natural that the business of the Pension Bureau should increase enormously after the close of the Civil War. In 1865, 72,684 claims were allowed, the disbursements being $8,525,123.11. There was a diminution after this, until the passage of the notorious Arrears Act, in 1879, when 141,466 claims were filed. The appropriation was insufficient, but the disbursements were $57,240,540.14. The law granting pensions has been substantially the same ever since the provisions of the Arrears Act ceased to be operative, June 30, 1880; the only changes of consequence having been made in the ratings of certain specific disabilities.

The number of claims filed has, however, increased. From the last report of the Commissioner of Pensions we learn that 75,726 claims were filed in the year ending June 30, 1888, as against 72,465 in 1887, and 31,116 in 1881. For the past few years the number of claims filed by survivors of the War of 1812 has been insignificant, and need not be taken into account. For the Mexican War, 7853 claims were filed in 1888, and 18,718 in 1887. This would make the number of claims filed in 1887 on account of the Civil War 53,747, and ill 1888, 67,873, as against less than 30,000 filed in 1881.

The causes which operate to produce the filing of such a large number of claims so many years after the war are several. First among them is the activity of the claim agent.

“ The country,” said Commissioner Bentley, in his annual report, over ten years ago, “ is being constantly advertised and drummed, from one end to the other, by claim agents in pursuit of persons who have honest claims, or those who are willing, in consideration of the fact that it will cost them nothing unless they win their pension, to file claims which have no merit, leaving it to the ingenuity or cupidity of their agent to ' work ’ the ease through.”

The numbers and the activity of the claim agents have materially increased since Mr. Bentley’s time, and so has the number of claims filed increased also.

A second cause is the belief, based upon party platforms and bills introduced at each session of Congress, that the benefits of the Arrears Act will be extended. As the new act may contain a limitation against claims filed after a certain date, and as it is impossible to say when that date may be, the soldiers, or their widows, argue that it is safest to send in their applications as soon as possible. This condition of affairs is carefully fostered by the claim agents.

Nor must the large number of meritorious claims be overlooked. There are many bodily infirmities peculiar to military life which cause little inconvenience to a man in the prime of life, but which break forth more or less violently in old age. Application for a pension is then made, and the fact that it has not been made before is no reason for suspecting its honesty.

The number of claims allowed in 1887 on account of the Civil War was 46,880, and in 1888, 46,750, as against about 25,000 in 1881. There is no part of the Commissioner of Pensions’ report more significant than the table which shows the number of invalid claims filed each year, and the percentage allowed of each year’s filing : —

Years in which the claims were filed. Number of invalid claims filed each year. Percent, of claims allowed of each year’s filing.
1862 1,362 80.1
1863 20,380 74.8
1864 20,263 79.9
1865 27,299 88.7
1866 35,799 87.2
1867 15,905 82.5
1868 7,292 84.7
1869 11,035 81.6
1870 12,991 80.9
1871 8,837 77.0
1872 8.857 76.3
1873 8,728 82.7
1874 9,302 75.7
1875 11,926 75.4
1876 17,030 70.9
1877 16,532 74.7
1878 18,812 74.2
1879 36,835 78.8
1880 110,673 67.8
1881 18,455 48.4
1882 29,004 46.2
1883 35,039 42.4
1884 28,962 39.8
1885 27,959 38.8
1886 35,202 34.2
1887 36,204 21.7
1888 47,349 4.7 1

“ Invalid ” claims are those of soldiers who apply in their own behalf. The claims of widows of soldiers, and of relatives who were dependent upon soldiers for support, are generally more difficult to prove and require a longer time in their adjudication than the invalid claims. It is a pity, therefore, that the table does not include these claims. It is also to be regretted that the table does include claims on account of wars previous to the Civil War, which are based upon mere service and are easily and quickly established. If the former were included, and the latter excluded, the result would be even more noteworthy than it now is.

From this statement of facts, it is evident that there must be something wrong in the method of proving claims. The labors of the Pension Office, at this rate, would seem to be interminable. The force of clerks employed is as large as it ever was, and consists of 1500 employees, at a cost of over $2,000,000 a year. The number of claims filed, as we have seen, increases annually, and the delay involved in their adjudication increases pari passu with the increase of claims. The fault lies in the system followed in proving claims under the law.

There is a volume published by the government, entitled A Digest of the Pension Laws, Rulings, Decisions, etc., and in the first edition of this work is to be found a treatise on the practice of the Pension Office. This “ practice ” is based upon the orders, rulings, and decisions of the Secretaries of the Interior and the Commissioners of Pensions for many years back. New decisions rescind old decisions, new points are being constantly ruled upon, and the system has become elaborate and complex. Under it, all the facts necessary to establish a claim, which are not shown by the official record in the War Department, are proved by the ex parte documentary evidence submitted by the claimant, or his attorney, to the Pension Office. Whether this evidence is good or bad, truthful or untruthful, the Pension Office must find out as best it can. It sees neither the claimant nor his witnesses. The whole case is conducted in writing.

To prove a pension claim under the law, it must be shown, in the first place, that the disability alleged originated in the service and in the line of the soldier’s duty. Not in one case out of twenty is there any record at the War Department showing this. In the absence of such record, the Pension Office requires the testimony of the regimental surgeon who treated the soldier, and of the commissioned officer whose business it was to have cognizance of his condition. If the testimony of neither can be procured, — and this is generally the case, — after the claimant has shown why he cannot procure their testimony, the evidence of two of his comrades is considered.

If the claim is on account of disease, as most of the claims are, it must next be shown that the claimant was disabled by the disease at the time he left the army, and that it has continued to disable him up to the present time. This must be proved by physicians who have treated the claimant. If physicians’ testimony cannot be procured, the testimony of employers and neighbors is considered. If he satisfies these demands, and if the United States Examining Surgeon declares he is disabled for performance of manual labor by the ailment he claims for, his claim is proved, and his name is added to the pension roll.

A claim filed shortly after the war was not hard to prove, under these requirements. The witnesses who had served with the soldier in the army were easily found, and their recollection of events was fresh. Similarly, the continued existence of a disease after service could be shown for a short period of years without a long and arduous search for the necessary proof. But with the passage of years the obstacles in the way of proving a claim have largely increased. Regimental officers and surgeons have died, or have forgotten ; fellow-soldiers, when any can be found, testify indefinitely and unsatisfactorily. To show that a particular disease has existed continuously for twenty-five years is a task of ever-increasing difficulty.

In considering the testimony produced in accordance with its requirements, the Pension Office has no direct means of ascertaining when an imposition is being attempted. The claimant is not likely to give information against himself, nor are the witnesses whom he selects likely to do so. It is his business to collect evidence to further his interests, and it is nobody’s business to discover evidence on the other side. The temptation to perpetrate fraud is strong. The probability of detection is slight. The fear of local public opinion is no restraint upon a dishonest claimant, because his neighbors need never know what proof he has procured. Sometimes a volunteer informer sends word to the Pension Office that the claim is fraudulent; sometimes the postmaster of the town, when written to by the Department, pronounces the character of the witnesses to be bad. But informers are not popular in a community, and postmasters are in no hurry to declare their fellow-townsmen untruthful. The public opinion that would restrain a soldier from openly attempting to defraud the government operates with equal strength in preventing any one from officiously standing in the light of his neighbor’s interests.

The delays which inevitably follow the endeavor of the Pension Office to discover the truth are endless. Witnesses are slow to answer the written questions sent them, and sometimes entirely neglect to do so ; and to explain to the claimant, or his lawyer, wherein the proof is lacking requires a correspondence covering a long period of time, and in the end attended by unsatisfactory results. In cases of exceptional complications, or where fraud is suspected, a clerk is sent by the Pension Office to the residence of the claimant and his witnesses to examine them.

This “ special examination ” is provided for by law, and but few of the claims adjudicated have had the benefit of it. Even when it is instituted, the truth is not always reached. A solitary government clerk, with an extremely limited knowledge of law, is not always a match for the claimant and his sharp attorney. It is hardly necessary to point out the disadvantages of the present system of proving claims to an honest applicant, or its advantages to a dishonest one. The latter, secure from the probability of detection, gets witnesses of the same character as himself, willing to swear to anything, while the honest man’s witnesses can testify only to the limited knowledge they possess.

Mr. J. A. Bentley, Commissioner of Pensions under Presidents Grant and Hayes, was certainly the most disinterested, if not the ablest, commissioner who has held the office since the Civil War. He, and he alone, seems to have appreciated the evils of the practice of the Pension Office. As a remedy, he advocated the establishment of numerous local commissions, each one to consist of a lawyer and a surgeon. The commission was to examine claimants and their witnesses openly, in the community in which they lived, and pass upon the merits of the claims ; the surgeon attending to the medical aspects of the case, and the lawyer to the points of law involved. Since Mr. Bentley’s suggestion, there have been established, under congressional enactment, many local medical boards, each composed of three competent surgeons, for the purpose of making a medical examination of all applicants for invalid pensions. Their examinations have been found to be thorough, and it is difficult to devise any better method for dealing with the medical side of the claim.

No material change has, however, been made in the system followed in proving the legal side of the case. A single legal officer would not be competent to attend to this satisfactorily. He would have to act as attorney for the government and as a judge; and, moreover, the matter is too important to be placed in the hands of one man, for, while the sum of money involved in each case may be small, the aggregate sum is enormous. A better plan would seem to be the establishment of local pension courts, holding their sessions publicly at the points most convenient for the parties concerned. The court, having been furnished with the soldier’s army record by the War Department, and the certificate of medical examination by the Board of Surgeons, should notify the claimant to appear with his witnesses, when ready to try the case, and should have power to summon witnesses on its own account, and to punish for contempt. The interests of the government should be protected by the proper legal officer, whose duties should consist, not in a causeless opposition to the claim presented, but in a careful vigilance to discover fraud. The claimant’s attorney would attend to his client’s interests, and the judge could easily decide in a few hours upon the merits of a claim thus presented.

The nature of the testimony required to prove a claim should remain substantially the same as it now is, but the court should be allowed a certain latitude in accepting less proof. A decision having been reached in a case, the findings and proceedings should be forwarded to the Commissioner of Pensions for his review and approval.

The grounds upon which are based a majority of the special pension acts passed by Congress are that, while the claimant has not been able to obtain the proof necessary to establish his claim under the rules of the Pension Office, it is, nevertheless, a just claim. This is the theory of special pension legislation. The abuses to which it has been carried in practice are too familiar to require any comment. The establishment of pension courts would do away with the excuse for this species of legislation, since the proof necessary to establish a claim would be subject to modification in special instances.

The fact that the proceedings would be open and among the claimant’s neighbors would cause a dishonest man to hesitate before attempting a fraud on the government; and if a fraud were attempted, the probability would be strong that it would be discovered, — neither of which guarantees of honesty now exists. On the other hand, the fact that the applicant would have speedy justice, and that the court would have power to pass favorably on his claim on less evidence than is now required, would accrue largely to the benefit of the honest claimant.

The details of the plan I have proposed cannot be discussed here. The number of courts necessary would depend upon the soldier population of the States. They would be numerous in the North and West; for the whole South two or three would suffice. After the large accumulation of old claims had been disposed of, the number of courts might be materially lessened. The Pension Office at Washington would consist of a mere handful of clerks, and the most liberal calculation in the number of courts and their expenses hardly results in so large a sum as the present gigantic Pension Office costs; and while this cost cannot be lessened materially for years to come, it would, under the new method, become less and less each year. The appropriations for payment of pensions, now so enormous, would, under the stimulus of quick justice and detection of fraud, also decrease materially.

Gaillard Hunt.

  1. Up to June 30th.